He is a cult figure among the puppeteers. Artistes, connoisseurs and researchers from India and abroad evince a keen interest in his pioneering works. He has been bestowed with the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for puppetry from India’s national academy of performing arts. Government of Odisha has also honoured him with the State’s highest honour for performing arts – Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja Samman. He is 78-year-old Maguni Charan Kuanr from Keonjhar in Odisha, the lone exponent of the much marginalized rod-puppetry.
xcerpts from an interview:
Do you find any takers for your art anymore?
It pains me a lot when people say that my art as dying. I am quite old now and would pass away anytime but my art would exist if it gets public patronage. I can claim that people belonging to all generationslove watching our performances. Few years ago, I was invited to stage a show at IIT, Mumbai. The young people there thoroughly enjoyed ourshow. People shower their appreciation wherever we perform but unfortunately we do not get enough opportunities to perform and sustain ourselves to pursue it as a profession. Most of my disciples discontinued it as a profession and switched over to other avocations, for survival.
Is there a solution to the crisis?
Puppetry is the most ancient arts form of the world and it thrivedwith patronage of the public and the royal rulers as well. We need to modernize our productions to suit the changing taste and time. But where is the government or community support for us today? I was honoured with the Akademi award by the Union Government but I was not even considered for a pension till then! How would an artiste survive to serve the art?
Both my sons quit this profession as they did not find it sustainable. Government can do a lot to save us.
How is your style different?
We have four forms of puppetry in the world – string, glove, shadow and rod. Fortunately Odisha is the only state in India to have all these four styles. And rod puppetry is only seen in my home town of Keonjhar; I have developed it from its crude form. Since the puppets are fixed on a wooden rod, it is known as rod puppetry. My puppets are the tallest and heaviest of all. Unlike the string puppeteers who operate from above, I do it from below — that gives me more freedom to manipulate.
What kind of productions do you do?
So far I have developed 20 full-length productions with about 300characters, all based on mythology; especially stories from The Mahabharata and the Ramayana. However, I have also developed plays with a contemporary touch on social issues. Given the right kind of resource support, I can show incredible gimmicks with my puppets. I can instil greater life into my lifeless puppets.
How did you get into puppetry?
I did not belong to the family of traditional puppeteers. My father was a zamindar of the erstwhile princely state of Keonjhar. As a kid,I curiously watched the local dalit community make a living by playing puppets fixed on a wooden rod in front of the houses of the locality. I was quite keen to learn playing the puppets like them. But my father would not allow me as it was the avocation of the dalits. Yet, with the help of the carpenter who was making the puppets, I secretly met the master puppeteer and started learning the art from him. When the master passed away, he had no successor. I decided to face my father's ire and of the orthodox society to perform puppetry in public. I was barely 20 then.
And there has not been any looking back since then.
How has been the journey so far as a puppeteer?
Quite challenging and exciting. Though I suffered financially, I am happy that I could save a rare arts tradition.
(In fact, Maguni Charan Kuanr has transformed the crude puppetry into a polished folk arts style. He not only mastered the handling of puppets, but also designed them as acarpenter, crafted the costumes himself, developed screenplays, scored music, designed stage properties and stage craft and even lent a variety of background voice to suit various characters in his plays.)